Thursday, 23 October 2014

A Pacer's Tale Part 3 - September 2014

Another year, another spot of pacing at the GNW100 miler. To those unaware, a bunch of crazy people pay to run along the Great North Walk every year. Some stop at Yarramalong (100km), some choose to continue on to Patonga (100 miles). From the 100km mark you are allowed to have a “pacer”. Someone to run with, who can in turn encourage, berate, nag, drag, guide, inspire you. They also make sure you remain safe.

This was my third year running as a pacer. It has become the highlight of my running year.   In 2013 I was lucky enough to pace Gavin Markey as he ran to victory (the previous year we hadn't finished at all). However, during 2013 victory celebrations at Patonga, we heard that Andrew Layson had withdrawn at Checkpoint 6 (about the 145km mark) with about 25km to go. So near yet so far. At the time I had a fairly good idea that I might be running again with Gav in 2014, but also thought that if for some reason that didn't happen, I would like to offer my services to Andrew.

As fate would have it, Gav wasn't able to compete in the 2014 GNW100 miler. This was a hard choice for him, but it did allow me to touch base with the ever humble Mr Layson. He already had a better offer, but when that didn't come to pass, I got the tap on the shoulder.

(NB:  Whilst Gav wasn't able to run 100miles, he still signed up to pace another runner.  So we had a side bet on which of us would reach Patonga first.  If our runners had to die along the way, well that was too bad).

When I began discussions with Andrew about what kind of a time he was hoping for, he was a bit mumbly and cagey. After some waffle about just being happy to finish, doesn't matter when...etc (what a load of garbage), he finally admitted that he had a time in mind. 26:56.

Now to the average man in the street, 26:56 means nothing. However, to an ultra runner aged between 50-59 years, we know this is the course record for our age group. I know because I have had it written in my training diary for two years. Now that is a real time to aim for.

As the big day approached, I received an email with a multitude of spreadsheets attached. I suudenly knew why he didn't finish last year. His brain is obviously too big and heavy. I studied the mountains of information intensely for about two minutes before my head began throbbing. So I simply wrote down his projected leg times, ignored the rest, and I was done.

Race day arrived. I tracked his progress on the website, and all seemed good. Swapped a few SMS with his son Ben, who confirmed he seemed in great shape. So I headed up to Yarramalong a happy little pacer. When Andrew arrived at 100km, his crew (his kids) bounced into action like a V8 Super cars pit crew. Baked beans, coffee, nibblies, socks, jokes. What a great bunch. Then it was time to go running off into the night.

all dressed up with somewhere to go

and off we go

Here is where the fun begins.

As we head up Bumble Hill, Andrew noticed that his second watch (who has a second watch?) was missing. He had borrowed it from Nathan. He needed it to eat (what?) At this point “tired runner brain” was fully engaged. Despite being on record pace, he was intent on turning back. As we shuffled along, I was brainstorming scenarios to ensure this did not occur (“if it's on the road you won't find it”, “if it's at the checkpoint someone will pick it up”, “Nathan's a top bloke, he'll understand”...etc). Even if I had to tie a rope around him, I was NOT letting him go back. Eventually we reached the top of Bumble Hill where we met up with Ben, who calmly took matters in hand.

For a while the excitement of the checkpoint and the watch situation kept Andrew on a real high. He was concerned about the missing watch and knowing when to eat and drink. He seemed confused that I simply drank when I am thirsty. As we ran I could still hear his brain ticking madly and the adrenalin pumping. He was all happy and chatty as we ran the single track down to Dead Horse Creek. However, as we ascended the other side, he became quieter. After a while he said “Rob, I've lost my sparkle”. If I had known this was going to occur, I would have brought some with me. As a preschool teacher, I have lots. Maybe a little bag next year. I promised him that soon we would hit the fire trail, and life would be better. We would find him some sparkle.

We hit the fire trail, and Andrew began buggering around with course directions. Without wanting to sound big headed, I know most of this trail so well I could hop on one leg backwards with a blind fold and still get home. I let him have his fun for a while but really wanted him to kick on. From this point I began describing the course ahead to encourage him not to stop and check directions, and speed him through track intersections.

We reached Somersby in good shape. Andrew had found some of his missing sparkle. He had been eating and drinking extremely well (despite no second watch), and it was paying off. At the check point he sat down to another meal of beans, coffee, and assorted nibblies and looked quite lordly sitting in his chair as his crew fussed over him. As the humble pacer I filled my own hydration bladder and ate the stalest ANZAC cookie ever put on the planet. Then we were off again. The second watch had turned up, but was set up wrong (don't borrow a traithletes watch) and the batteries were failing. He was trying to run and press tiny buttons as well. Again, his big heavy brain was slowing him down.

There is an expression “what happens on the trail, stays on the trail”. Shortly after Somersby, all those beans and coffee began percolating madly. Something was about to happen on the trail. I turned off my head torch and stood serenely in the dark (at a safe distance), gazing up at the stars. So lovely and peaceful. Eventually Andrew caught up to me after leaving a little something to stay on the trail. Off we went again.

I suspect the downhill was a bit more painful than Andrew was letting on. He is such a tough cookie. This is a great section to run with legs in good shape, but murder with burning quads. We decided he should be in the lead, as my being in front would possibly push him harder than was necessary. He was slow, but definitely steady as we continued to consume distance. It was getting very misty, and we managed to pass under Mooney Mooney Bridge without even seeing it.

By now Andrew had begun running equations in his head – a dangerous thing to do. He thought that maybe he had spent too much time at Somersby checkpoint (maybe I agreed). He was also concerned about the time taken this leg. He began trying to remember what time we had left Yarramalong, when we had arived at Somersby, he was trying to remember what his projected split times were, multiply by the number the first number you thought of, divide by your birthday...etc. Way too many numbers crunching around up in his tired head. Gibberish. However, Andrew was flying, we were near Checkpoint 6, with about 30km to go and about 5 ½ hours to get the record.

We flew through the last check point. I was stuffing my pockets with pretzels, and I heard rumour of Pizza Shapes, so I grabbed a bag. Off we went. I soon discovered that pretzels are hard to swallow on the run, but got them down anyway. Then I began trying to open up my little baggie of Pizza Shapes, and in that wee moment of distraction I tripped. A little way back we had been discussing how time slows when you fall. It doesn't slow that much, and as I fell and rolled, I did manage to smash my arm and smack my head a treat. Andrew turned to check on me, I said I was fine (not really). The real miracle was somehow falling, and opening my baggie of Pizza Shapes, and jumping up to run without spilling one. Pure genius. I ran on munching happily.

Just as I finished the Shapes and stowed my rubbish in a pocket, a large muddy puddle loomed. Andrew seemed to glide over it. I saw a small rock he must have trod on, but the moment my foot touched it, the world disappeared and I did the biggest belly flop/ face plant combo. Again Andrew turned to check what had happened, again I said I was fine, but I was covered in cuts and bumps, all well disguised by the layers of mud dripping off me (and it stank) – but no whinging now.

Andrew was worried about our slow progress up the hill. I thought he had worked out a perfect split for this section (4:44) and we were right on track. I kept reassuring him that a slow climb was perfect, because it was all very runnable after this. He was eating and drinking, it was perfect prep for the last push.

When we finally reached the top (at 158.1km), Andrew began playing silly buggers again with his laminated course directions, standing there trying to make sense of all those tiny numbers, trying to orient the numbers to north or something. I asked for them to check something (maybe a little white lie) then ran away. If he wanted a look he had to catch me. I didn't hand them back until we were at 169.7km (I know this detail because I still had the course directions) and only fire trail to go.

Last year, after the big climb, this was where last year Gavin could really “smell the barn” and began powering to the finish. From here on I was trying to stay ahead of Andrew to double check small turns and twists so he wouldn't have to muck around (I think I lost him twice which isn't bad in this complicated section), but staying ahead of him was hard in places because he was flying. In my head, if we could maintain a steady pace he had the record – but he was going way faster than I expected. He was still trying to perform some weird maths in his head and wasn't sure about the record, but I was. We were miles ahead.

A few times I thought he was going to kill me he was going so hard, but a nice descent down from Warrah Trig to the sunny sands of Patonga slowed him down (I still had fresh 70km legs after all). Not that it mattered. All the hard work was done. I gave him a firm handshake just before we hit the beach, and invited him to lead the way to glory. Whereupon he promptly set off in the wrong direction. I ran ahead of him for a while longer until I was sure he was heading the right way, then let him fly off to the finish. Old record 26:56. New record 26:15. Well done Mr Layson. You are a legend.

Here we come
All done and dusted

Not content with beating me to Patonga, Gav resorted to fisticuffs to affirm his physical superiority.  Next time pick on someone your own size and age Gav.

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